Four and a half years after the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) petitioned USDA over the use of labeling claims like “humane” and “sustainable,” the issues involved may be taken up by a federal court.

AWI has sued USDA in the federal court for the District of Columbia, asking a yet-to-be-assigned judge to order the agency to require independent certification of certain labeling claims about animals are raised.

Two attorneys associated with the Duke University School of Law’s Environmental Law & Policy Clinic, Michelle B. Nowlin and Shannon Marie Arata, filed the complaint against USDA on behalf of AWI on Nov. 14. Government attorneys have not yet responded to the complaint, which names Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Acting Administrator Paul Kiecker of the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) as defendants.

USDA has not responded to AWI’s petition, which was filed in 2014. The federal Administrative Procedures Act requires federal agencies to respond to rulemaking petitions within a reasonable time.

“The USDA’s current policy surrounding the approval of animal raising claims on meat and poultry packages utterly fails consumers,” said Dena Jones, director of AWI’s farm animal program.

AWI’s petition, filed back when Tom Vilsack was Secretary of Agriculture, asked USDA to require third-party audits to substantiate holistic claims like “humane” and “sustainable” so customers will know the claims are verified before they appear on food labels.

AWI contends labels professing products are “Animal Compassionate” or were “Raised with Care” have increased in recent years, but consumers who are concerned about the well-being of animals can’t be sure what they are getting.

USDA did issue a guidance on the subject in 2016, but it did not satisfy AWI and others. AWI says “99 percent of the commenters at the time were opposed to it.” The 2016 guidance did not require third-party verification of animal welfare and sustainability claims. AWI says it did not increase transparency and continues to allow for misleading claims.

The Washington D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organization formed in 1951 with the goal of reducing the animal suffering caused by people.

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